/Understanding the Middle East – Part 1: Mental and Systemic Foundations

Understanding the Middle East – Part 1: Mental and Systemic Foundations

In the mini-series, world politics student Mohammed S. Hadi takes a look at the historical events that have shaped the Middle East and the Arab world the way we know them today.

Mental and Systemic Foundations


Text: Mohammed S. Hadi


On September 11th, 1840 the Egyptian troops in Levant and the Ottoman navy “under Egyptian control” in Alexandria were attacked from the Mediterranean. For more than a decade the Ottoman governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Basha (1769–1849), had lead an armed struggle against Istanbul. By then he had been in power for more than three decades, he had fought in Greece, invaded Sudan, smashed the first Saudi state and taken over Levant, with no one other than himself keeping him from sacking the imperial capital of the caliph. But those whom by his army was attacked were no Ottoman troops, indeed, these ships came from the other side of the Mediterranean in aid of the Ottoman sultan against one of his strongest provincial governors. But, what had made Mohammed Ali so effective? Well, in comparison to the Ottoman ways of governance and bureaucratic and military organization (both in central and provincial governments) Mohammed Ali’s Egypt was far more adaptable to the European innovations of the age.

Seven years before Mohammed Ali rose to power, Egypt had been invaded by Napoleon in 1798. This came as a big shock for the whole Middle East. Before the arrival of French troops to Alexandria, British naval forces tried to contact the Mameluke rulers of Egypt and to inform them, that the French were coming and that they were willing to offer the Mamelukes military aid to repel the attack. The Mamelukes ridiculed the British offer, asked them to leave and to never come back again – these are the territories of the sultan and no one will dare to get close to them! Especially not frivolous countries like Britain and France. The Mamelukes were confident of their position (Rogan 2009).

The French invasion of Egypt lasted only for three years. In March 1801, British troops landed on the shores of Egypt and offered the Ottoman forces military aid to accelerate the process of defeating the French army. The most crucial thing that was learned from the Napoleonic campaign over Egypt, was that the land of Islam had fallen into a long coma during which it has felt so comfortable with itself, that it hadn’t been noticing the major changes taking place everywhere around it. Changes had to be made on many stages and Mohammed Ali – the new, young governor of Egypt – was craving to execute them.

Back to September 1840. The attack on the Egyptian army had succeeded and Mohammed Ali was forced to retreat out of Levant and to swear allegiance to the Ottoman sultan. Nothing would seem strange about that, for it was not the first unsuccessful rebellion against the Ottoman authority. But the forces, by which Ibrahim Basha’s (Ali’s son and the field marshal of his combatant forces) army was attacked, were no Ottoman naval trying to put an end to the Egyptian insurgency. Indeed, these were the Russian, British, Prussian and Austrian allied forces, by whom the Egyptian army was attacked.


The Pre-Great War Regional Order

In his crucial work The Old Social Classes & The Revolutionary Movements In Iraq (1978) Hannah Batatu describes the Iraqi individual at the beginning of the 20th century as well aware of his Arab ethnicity and identity, but beyond that it did not mean anything for him: no nationalist ideology seemed to attract him, not at least among the ordinary citizens of the newly established state. But why was that?

When Islam was first introduced, it was branded as a divine message from heaven, and after the death of the prophet in 632, many tribes withdrew themselves from the pacts they were subscribed to. The divine revelation had pronounced that from now on there would be no heavenly guidance to tell them what to do, and they had to rely on their own. The tribal nature of the Arabian Peninsula made it impossible for the religion to survive without centralized authority, firstly because of the long history of disputes between different tribes and secondly because of the nature of Arab tribes, which was not in favor of falling under the will of other tribes. For a moment, Islam seemed to be falling apart and only after an armed mobilization under the leadership of a single leader of the community, Islam was able to maintain its status on the Arabian Peninsula.

The age came to be known as the rule of the Rashidun (632–661), that was the first of the four major caliphates. Rashidun literally translates to the “rule of the wise men/well-guided caliphs”, who were the closest companions of the prophet and his very first believers. Most of moderate Muslims of our current day put them in a holy status above any criticism and regard them as the founding fathers of the Islamic caliphate. They are successively: Abu-Bakr, Omar, Ottoman and Ali.

In his book The Concept of the Islamic State, Mohammed Djabroun argues that the creation of the caliphate state was an innovation, which the contextual necessity imposed on the community of believers: either this or face a quick devastation of Islam. In other words, the Islamic state had no divine foundations, neither in Quran or in the speeches of the prophet.

On the other side, many traditional and radical islamists argue, that the caliphate is of a divine source and that only under a state, which implement the Sharia law, “the divine law”, a Muslim can live a meaningful life. Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic theocracy in Iran are good examples of that.

The Rashidun period did not last for long. With many internal struggles taking a place at this time, the companions of the prophet fought each other in a bloody struggle for power. Nonetheless, this period sensed remarkable achievements on the military expansion effort. The mighty Persians and the Byzantine empire were defeated, and the whole Middle East opened its arms for a new culture, which would lend its character on it for the next fourteen hundred years.

After the Rashidun period, the flag of leadership was transferred to the Umayyads (661–750), who were the siblings of the prophet. It was at this time the Islamic state and with it the whole regional system took their first and final shape. The model of rule was changed from a communal into a dynastic one and the permanent institutions of the state were established by adopting a merged model based on the Persian and Byzantine ruling styles. New governmental innovations were also made. If we had to compare the Umayyads to a contemporary political regime, we could see it resembling a nationalist/ethnic regime. Indeed, the Umayyad dynasty adopted nationalism before it was even cool!

All the high administrative positions of the mighty empire, which extended from the western borders of China in the east to the Iberian Peninsula in the west, were filled by Arabs. this was probably the reason, why the Umayyads were able to achieve such remarkable achievements in terms of military expansion, but it was also the same reason, why it quickly collapsed and with it collapsed the status of Arabs as the holders of the Islamic banner for good. Since the year 750, only two caliphs of Islam were born to an Arab parent.

Next came the Abbasids (In Iraq 750–1258, in Cairo 1261–1517). Their successful revolt against the Umayyads was described by Bernard Lewis (1995) as the victory of Persians against the Arabs. The high positions in the government were filled by non-Arabs: first Turks, then Persians and finally with Turks. This was a new model of rule, which was regarded by Francis Fukuyama (2011) as a unique system of bureaucratic and military meritocracy. The Abbasids or none of their successors had no confidence in hiring free Arab men to fill the sensitive positions of the state. Instead they relied on slaves to do the job, for that slaves had no further ambitions in their eyes, and they obeyed the hands who fed them. History would provide a very different outcome.

The 614 years lasting Abbasid reign was divided into three eras. The first was the “golden age” in which science, philosophy and literature flourished. The second marked the division of the empire into small autonomic entities and sensed the decline of the rule of the caliph in favor of successive Persian and Turkish dynasties, which took control of Mesopotamia and the imperial capital with it. Those were the same men, that were supposed not to have any political ambitions!

The third era marked the collapsing of the empire after the Mongol invasion in the imperial capital Baghdad in 1258. The price was very high, especially in the infrastructure of waterways of that area, which later came to be known as Iraq. A full recovery from the Mongol devastation did not happen until the late 1970s. It is also important to note that the Abbasid period witnessed the age of recording of Islamic theology. It signed the religious split theologically after it was established politically few hundred years ago after the death of the prophet. Shi’ism and Sunnism were not pure political movements anymore.

The horrors of the sacking of Baghdad remained in the Middle Eastern collective memory for centuries to come. It had an immense contribution on the conservative branch of Islam. It was at this period of time, when the well know Arab and Islamic cleric,Ibn Taymyyiah wrote his books, which later have been regarded as the main sources of Wahhabi and jihadist thinking.

After the devastation of Baghdad, the imperial capital was moved to Cairo and the Mamelukes (literally translated to slaves) took over the mission of defending the Islamic lands against the Mongols. They succeeded in defeating the Mongols at the battle of Ain Jalut (1260) near Galilee. The Mamelukes gained their legitimacy by bringing the Abbasid Caliph with them to Cairo, but he was a man with no power, a real-life puppet of his age.

In January 1517, the Ottoman troops entered Cairo after defeating the Mamelukes in the battle of Marj Dabiq. The Ottoman sultan Selim I – known as Selim the grim in Europe – took the Abbasid caliph with him as he returned to Istanbul. Nobody knows what had happened to the poor man, but it was rumored that the caliph had abdicated his status as the leader of Islamic world to the Ottoman sultan. From now on the Ottoman rulers would add the title of the caliph among many others in their imperial decrees.

It is also important to note, that at this time major changes were taking place in the eastern territories of the Islamic world: The Safavid dynasty (1501–1736) was established in current day Iran by the hands of Ismail Shah. The people of the area were forced to convert to Shi’ism, for it was the official religion of the new dynasty and the main source of its legitimacy. These developments would have a major role on the later events, for they have contributed to strengthening of the religious differences among the two major branches of Islam throughout the many wars, which have been fought between them and the Ottomans.

But back to Egypt: The Mamelukes continued to rule the country until the arrival of Mohammed Ali in 1805, when he finally eliminated them in the infamous massacre of citadel in Cairo.

Until the arrival of the Ottomans, the imperial capital had remained within the heartland of Arabic world. Now a new reality was imposed, and the capital was moved to an outside territory. Arabs saw themselves only as a single ethnic group out of many that were ruled by a Muslim leader. They did not resist the moving of the capital as long as the social contract between them and the caliph remained valid. The task was simple: provide protection for house of Islam and the religion and you will have our loyalty. Indeed, by this time, the legitimacy of the ruler was based on religious foundation.

After the dismissal of the caliphate by European powers in the 1920s, a new question was asked: what are the sources of legitimacy for this new form of government? Throughout the 20th century the rulers of the Middle East would continue to invent and reinvent different methods and explanations about religious connotations in a try to strengthen their legitimacy in the eyes of their nationals.



The reason why I chose the particular event at the beginning of this article as a starting point of this mini-series, is because it has been wildly marginalized by scholars of Middle Eastern studies, or at least by those who I have read. For me this event is of a substantial importance in regard to the later developments. For centuries dynasties have risen and fallen without an external interference and the fate of the regional order has been decided by powers within the structure of the region. But now Europeans intervened directly to disrupt the life cycle of Middle Eastern states in the favor of an already collapsing empire. The idea was to keep the ill old regime in control. That was considered better than to have a new strong state, which might disrupt the trade routes between Europe and the East.

As I said before, until that point, the native people of the Middle East saw themselves as superior to their European counterparts. In terms of cultural and scientific innovations, the Arab/Islamic culture was destined to take over the world, in the eyes of Muslims. But something went wrong. First it was the shock of witnessing Napoleon’s troops wandering around the streets of Cairo and then this had happened. Little by little, Arabs and with them Persians and Turks understood that their fate was no longer in their hand. This stimulated attempts to modernization, which later came to be known as the age of Islamic enlightenment. Aimed to reform the intellectual bases of the Middle Eastern collective mind, it was accompanied with political reforms and organizational restorations lead by the Ottoman sultan himself. This might have postponed the collapse of the empire for few decades, but the damage was big, and it was impossible to avoid the inevitable from taking a place.

Finally, the last nail in the Ottoman coffin was hammered at the eve of the First World War. When the Ottomans decided to join the war on the German side, they had different calculations in their mind: a quick victory in the war would undermine the northern Russian danger, which had been pressing on the back of their necks for more than a century. This decision proved later to have disastrous implications. The loss of the war brought a new era with a new order, but this time it was cooked and shaped by external powers, who had a very limited knowledge about the complicated and overlapped relations and histories of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East. All of a sudden, new borders were extended and new exotic terms such as “sovereignty” and “balance of powers” were brought to the region straight from Europe. Not to deny the quick adaptation and localization of western ideas, these concepts remain loaded until this very day with controversy and unintelligibility in regard to the Middle Eastern context and in the eyes of many groups, especially those with religious backgrounds. ISIS is only a single example of a failed attempt to revolt against these ideas with a revisionist intention.



  1. Batatu, Hannah. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements in Iraq.
  2. Djabroun, Mohammed. The Concept of the Islamic State: the Crisis of Foundations and the Inevitability of Modernity, 129.
  3. Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East: a Brief History of the Last 2000 Years, 75.
  4. Fukuyama, Francis. The origins of political order.